Anti-Asian Violence: Who Do We Blame?
Updated: Apr 2
CW: hate incidents, murder
As many of us in the Chinese American community are well-aware, there has been a drastic increase in anti-Asian racism since the start of the pandemic. Most recently, we’ve had to bear witness to the shooting of six Asian women in Atlanta, as well as a horrifying of slew of violence committed against our most vulnerable elderly population: Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai American man who was shoved to the ground in San Francisco; Noel Quintana, a 61-year-old Filipino American man who was slashed in the face while riding the subway in New York City; the unnamed 52-year-old Chinese American woman who was assaulted while waiting in line at a New York City bakery and consequently required 10 stitches in her head.
While this country has had a long history of scapegoating Asian Americans for disease and of anti-Asian violence more generally, a recent study also demonstrated that the use of the term “China Virus,” most infamously popularized by former President Donald Trump, has been linked to increases in anti-Asian bias. The NYPD reports that there were 29 anti-Asian hate incidents reported in 2020, 24 of which were instances of COVID-related xenophobia. As second-generation Chinese and Asian Americans, it’s difficult to watch. Each time we see yet another Asian elder get attacked on the street, our hearts ache, wondering if that could have been our parents, our own 奶奶, our own 爷爷.
Some members of our community have called for increased policing; others are wondering if they should be buying guns for self-protection. And much of the recent media coverage on and in response to anti-Asian violence has targeted Black communities, sparking further racial tension. In February, Asian American actors Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu offered a reward of $25,000 for information on the assailant who attacked a 91-year-old man in Oakland’s Chinatown, a move that was criticized by Asian American leaders for ignoring the work of local organizations who knew how to better address the needs of their community, and for not addressing the root causes of the violence. (Kim and Wu later donated the money to community organizations after belatedly realizing that the suspect was already in custody.)
Amidst these constant tragedies, many continue to ask: how can we demand justice for our community? Who should we hold responsible for these acts of hatred? What is actually going on, and how do we make sure that violence like this doesn't happen again?
The reality of the situation is often more complicated than what we see in viral videos or news articles. In the case of the highly publicized incident in Oakland’s Chinatown, president of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce Carl Chan later clarified that the 91-year-old victim was not Asian, but a Latino man named Gilbert Diaz. Yahya Muslim, the 28-year-old who attacked Diaz, has had a history of “random” and “unprovoked” assaults on strangers in his community, and police, witnesses, and victims agree that Muslim did not target any specific racial group. Muslim also has a history of mental health and addiction issues.
This is not to diminish the significance of other violent incidents that were racially motivated, such as the camouflaged stranger who yelled “You f–king Chinese!” right before he hit a 47-year-old Chinese American man on the head. This is also not to sidestep the fact that recent media coverage has indeed featured Black individuals involved in attacks against Asian elders, such as in the case of Vicha Ratanapakdee. But it is also true that American media tends to over-report on incidents involving Black suspects.
It is also impossible to claim that we can stop anti-Asian violence by simply hunting down a few suspects who were caught on camera. For every violent incident that makes it to social media, there are countless other incidents of robberies, petty theft, and verbal harassment that go unreported due to language barriers or mistrust and unfamiliarity with police reporting systems. Anti-Asian violence affects us all, but it disproportionately impacts low-income communities of color, like the Chinatowns where many of these viral videos of attacks originate.
Christian Hall (right) with his parents, Fe and Gareth Hall. Christian Hall was a 19-year-old Chinese American teenager who was experiencing a mental health emergency when the Pennsylvania State Police shot and killed him. Hall died with his hands up in the air. His family is currently being represented by Ben Crump, the same lawyer who represented George Floyd’s family following his murder in May 2020.
Angelo Quinto (pictured) was a 30-year-old Filipino American man who was murdered by police while experiencing an episode of paranoia. His sister had called the police for help, but officers instead knelt on Mr. Quinto’s back for nearly five minutes, murdering him as a result.
Hall and Quinto’s stories are not unique to the current moment. In 1997, there was Kuan Chung Kao, a thirty-three-year-old Taiwanese American engineer who got into a drunken altercation at a bar with a customer who had been making racist comments. When Kao returned home, shouting angrily, his neighbors called the police on him. A police officer shot and killed him in his driveway when Kao did not put down a stick he had been holding. The cops justified his murder by proclaiming that he had been waving the stick “in a threatening martial-arts fashion.” There was no evidence that Kao had ever been trained in martial arts; the police had simply used a racist assumption to excuse the fact that they killed Kao. The police did not protect Christian Hall, Angelo Quinto, or Kuan Chung Kao; the police murdered them. and their stories have been woefully under-reported in mainstream media.
Then, of course, there is the most recent case of Xiaojie Tian, Daoyou Feng, Julie Park, Yong Ae Yue, Sun Cha Kim, and Hyun Jung Grant—the 6 Asian American women who were shot and killed in Atlanta. Captain Jay Baker of Georgia’s Cherokee County claimed that the shooter had simply been having “a bad day” when he murdered 8 people, and further claimed that the murders were not racially motivated. Then, it was revealed that Baker posted a photo on Facebook in April 2020 of a shirt that he’d bought, which read: "Covid 19 IMPORTED VIRUS FROM CHY-NA."
If we cannot rely on the police, an institution that has historically brutalized minority groups, what can we do? It is worth noting that many of these recent violent incidents happened not in the wealthy, predominantly Asian suburbs of the Bay Area or New Jersey, but in vulnerable, low-income communities. In other words, these violent acts did not happen in a vacuum. In Oakland’s Chinatown, where 91-year-old Gilbert Diaz was attacked, 43% of the mostly Asian population is aged 60 and older, over 30% of residents live below the poverty line, and roughly 60% of the population are women. As immigrant rights activist Tony Choi has pointed out: “Our elders, if they can't afford to live in the communities, are driven to the fringes where they don't have the necessary protection or access to in-language and culturally competent resources. Physical violence is just one effect of this. Isolation and poverty also tag along.” Elderly Asian immigrants from New York City’s Flushing neighborhood spend hours each day riding the bus to a casino in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania—not to gamble, but to sell casino vouchers. They make $18 a day, and all are living well below the poverty line.
Migrant massage parlor workers, like those killed by a white supremacist on March 16, 2021’s shootings near Atlanta, are sometimes coerced or deceived into joining such industries, but other times, they choose this line of work because it is the “best alternative among limited options.” Unsurprisingly, many Chinese women who work at massage parlors have limited economic resources, English skills, and little to no American educational credentials, and are distrustful of the police because their line of work is deeply criminalized. In a North American study conducted by migrant worker advocacy organizations SWAN and Butterfly, 98% of Chinese massage workers interviewed said that they would not call the police when they are in trouble.
What is arguably having a longer-term impact on the well-being of our Asian American communities is combined racial and economic violence, exacerbated by the pandemic. This is what Dr. Connie Wun from AAPI Women Lead names “systemic violence." In other words, effects that are not as hypervisible as clips of violent attacks on social media and in the news. According to a July 2020 report from UCLA, 83% of Asian Americans in California with high school degrees or less filed unemployment claims, compared to 37% for non-Asians. In New York City, rates of unemployment among Asian Americans rose to 25%, the largest increase of all races, according to an October report from the Asian American Federation (AAF). National data unfortunately often obscures these local realities: a national poll from the Harvard School of Public Health reported that 37% of Asians had experienced serious financial problems during the pandemic, compared with 72% of Latinos, 60% of Blacks, and 55% of Native Americans. But this survey, as Scientific American points out, was conducted by phone only in English or Spanish, therefore excluding Asian Americans who do not speak fluent English and “who, ironically, are likely poor, vulnerable and most in need.”
Watching the brief, violent videos of our community members being attacked makes it easy to lose sight of the bigger picture: the complex reasons why elderly, poor Asian Americans, and femme-identifying Asian Americans are so vulnerable in the first place. If we want to protect our community, we must ensure that the social infrastructures that support our elders, our poor, our women, and our undocumented live in—employment, housing, healthcare, and more—are robust and adequate. These are issues that we can rally around in solidarity with other vulnerable communities—people of color, queer folk, migrants, and undocumented immigrants.
Perhaps the silver lining to all of this is the fact that many organizations and leaders are working together to find safe, community-based solutions. The Black Bay Area, an organization that supports Black communities in the Bay Area, recently fundraised over $16,000 to support victims of violence in the Bay Area, the proceeds of which went to organizations such as the Asian Health Center in Oakland and the Vietnamese Health Center in San Francisco.
The WeChat Project has compiled a list of resources where you can learn more about local and national organizations who are working directly with vulnerable communities—including Asian Americans—who are impacted by the pandemic and racial violence. Whether you donate to or volunteer at any of these organizations, support your local Chinatown businesses, sign Christian Hall’s petition, or learn more about how to support Angelo Quinto, we invite you to join the WeChat Project in our efforts to uplift our community by listening to and supporting our most vulnerable members. We will make it out of this—but only if we work together.